In review: Puss in Boots & Berio's Folk Songs Shauna Yarnell, Lillan Brooks, and Christina Campsall in Luciano Berio's Folk Songs. Photo by Stuart Lowe,

In review: Puss in Boots & Berio's Folk Songs

Jenna Simeonov

The Glenn Gould School presented its fall opera this week, a double bill of Xavier Montsalvatge’s El gato con botas (Puss in Boots), and Luciano Berio’s Folk Songs. The two shows are objectively different in musical style and dramatic inspiration, but director Liza Balkan writes that pairing El gato and Folk Songs “is a desire for storytelling that embraces surprise, humour, truth, freedom of play, and a willingness to be fearless and intimate with you, the audience.”

They used Mazzoleni Concert Hall for the production, a more intimate space than Koerner Hall (in which I saw last year’s La belle Hélène), and Balkan really did use the audience to help tell these stories. Puss in Boots was a totally new piece for me, if not a new story. They sang in Spanish, with added English dialogue written by Balkan herself. We met a bunch of cats, namely Meghan Jamieson in the title role, along with feline pips Emma Greve, Justin Maisonneuve, and John-Michael Scapin (unfortunately billed as supernumaries, seeing as they had a good share of the action and dialogue in this production). The alley-cat look was clear, and the introductory scene let us meet the characters in this other world; the guy on his phone nonstop would turn out to be The King, and the prissy-looking girl, icked out by the stray cats would later be The Princess.

El gato con botas featured good singing across the board. As El Gato, Meghan had a clear, friendly sound and I could tell she enjoyed singing in Spanish. As The Miller, who is gifted El Gato in his father’s will, Alvaro Vasquez Robles was a sweet, wide-eyed foil to his pet. Jocelyn Fralick was a lovely Princess; hers is a voice I hadn’t heard before, and I anticipate a full, rich sound from her in the coming years. I was really impressed with Diego Catala as The King. He didn’t push his voice beyond its limits, but he showed off a healthy warmth that will continue to grow. In one of the coolest roles I’ve heard in a while was Gabriel Sanchez-Ortega as The Ogre. He has a booming bass sound that’s a little wild, but totally his own. With voices like his, settling can take a while; I’m happy to be patient with Sanchez-Ortega, since I think there’s a special sound in there.

The cast of GGS Opera’s production of Puss in Boots. Photo by Stuart Lowe.

The production was full of play. The intimate space, and the stage they shared with a decently sized orchestra, meant that there was little place to hide behind special effects. Balkan played with these limitations in really creative ways. The “supernumary” cats helped create a hilarious, raging river for The Miller to almost drown in, and bored flashlight play punctuated The Ogre’s incessant shapeshifting. They even set loose a herd of balloon-animal rabbits for the cats’ hunting prey; the audience played keep-up, and I got bonked in the head with a big mylar helium dealio. There was an atmosphere of improvisation, which came in handy when a little boy in front of me decided to steal their balloon and keep it with him in his seat for the whole show. (Side note: parents, opportunities like this are great for teaching your kids about not taking things that aren’t theirs.)

I loved the surrealistic vibe of the show, and how the “show” interacted with the orchestra and the audience. Music Director Peter Tiefenbach looked pretty snazzy in his matador jacket, I must say. I want to see the piece again, since I’ll admit to losing a few details along the way. I’m not sure it worked for me to have English dialogue surrounding Spanish singing; there was a synopsis of the Puss in Boots story included in the program, but no direct translation. There seemed to be action and information in the sung sections, and I wondered if surtitles could have been an option.

The second half was totally different in look and sound. The orchestra thinned out to form a smaller ensemble, seated in a broad curve across the stage that surrounded a simple bench and wicker basket. Berio’s Folk Songs is a song cycle comprising of 11 folk songs in different languages. It was first premiered by Cathy Berberian in 1964; she and Berio were married at the time, and he had written the piece in part “as a tribute to the extraordinary artistry” of his wife.

Berio leaves the folk songs’ texts and melodies intact; underneath the elements we know well, he writes descriptive, atmospheric accompaniments for the chamber ensemble that set up a world for each song. For this production, Folk Songs was shared between three beautiful mezzo-sopranos Lillian Brooks and Christina Campsall, and Shauna Yarnell. In what felt like a continuous scene, the women traded the folk songs as if in conversation with each other. They exchanged jokes and games, tales of lovers dead or far away, and shared the odd dirty story. Each of the three singers had standout moments for me, both as singers and as actors. The songs brought out gorgeous things in all of their voices; perhaps it was the freedom inherent in the folk song as a concept, but the women sang with lovely freedom and honesty. I was particularly thrilled to hear Christina Campsall in this kind of singing; she sounds noticeably different from even the last time I really heard her (in last season’s La belle Hélène). Her sound is focused and rich, and her top is really thrilling especially for a mezzo with a middle voice like hers.

I thought the production beautiful to watch; it had a feeling of being in an ancient-Greece setting, but really was a timeless telling of these stories; it seemed to be about all the women who have ever felt things in their lives. Well done, ladies!

Hear more from the Glenn Gould School at the GGS Vocal Showcase, Jnuary 30, 2016, at 7:30pm. Tickets start at $15 - for details, click here.

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